Opening our arms: Embracing refugees makes Grand Rapids a stronger city

West Michigan is home to some 25,000 refugees. Susan Kragt, the Executive Director of the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center, explains why we must do a better job about seeking these voices out as we discuss the development of our economy, our schools, and our neighborhoods. When we do, Grand Rapids will become an even better place to live.
This op-ed is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Susan Kragt, who currently serves as the Executive Director of the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center. Kragt is a non-profit professional with 10 years of experience in the fields of community organizing and refugee services. For the past eight years, Kragt has been actively welcoming refugees in West Michigan, with a focus on the long-term successful integration of refugees.

West Michigan is home to some 25,000 refugees. These individuals once called places like Burundi and Burma home. They lived next to Mt. Everest and the Nile and spent their time not so differently than you and I: cultivating the land, growing a small business, and caring for their family and friends. And then, for reasons outside of their control, they were forced to leave. They made their way to a refugee camp—a place of waiting between there and here, unsure if there would ever be another “here.” A few were chosen. And an even smaller segment of the few were told they were going to a place called “Grand Rapids, Michigan.” And when they came, we were all better for it.

Susan KragtHowever simplistic and rose-colored this narrative of the refugee experience may seem, its essence is true. Refugee resettlement reflects our better humanitarian nature, a nature that due to international and domestic upheaval is being called into question.

As the number of refugees in world has increased to unprecedented levels, communities like ours have risen to the challenge. This coming year, West Michigan will welcome around 900 newcomers. Unfortunately, as the number of individuals resettled has risen, federal funding for support services (such as school support services), has not increased. Due to changes in how funds are allocated, funding for the upcoming year is reduced and services are being cut. This coming year, organizations like the Refugee Education Center are receiving funding federal funding based on a year when the number of refugees arriving in our community was 450. And these cuts are coming at a time when the value of refugee lives is being debated.

It is easy to write these issues off as policy issues or a question of economics to be decided at a national or even international level. But refugee resettlement has always been driven by local communities. And as such, should be a topic we discuss in every sector and in every level of leadership in our community. This conversation should not focus on what happens before they are here—who comes and how and why. Immigration is an important conversation but it can overshadow other important issues. We need to discuss what it means to be together now that we are all taking up the same place in this world. We should ask questions like how can we use education to unlock the potential of an incredibly diverse and global workforce? Or how are we promoting refugee owned businesses so that our local economy is enriched?

Right now, refugees are often left out of our community conversations. This means that when refugee support programs are cut, most of the community is unaware. It also means that the only message many local refugees hear is one of fear and hostility towards themselves and their family and friends. But including refugees in community conversations is not just about refugees. Yes, resettling refugees is a good humanitarian deed. Welcoming refugees is very much about morality. But it is not just something we do self-sacrificially to make us feel good. Refugees bring diverse perspectives and unique gifts.  When a single voice is silenced, we miss out. People often use the example that Albert Einstein as a refugee to highlight this point. But someone does not need to be Einstein to have value. What can we learn from a refugee parent, farmer, teacher, or child?

It is not enough to simply allow refugees to co-exist with us. We need to do a better job about seeking these voices out as we discuss the development of our economy, our schools, and our neighborhoods. And when we do, Grand Rapids will become an even better place to live.
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